What is up with Lent?

What is up with Lent?

The season of Lent is upon us. Although I don’t do facebook, my wife keeps informing me of everyone’s posts about what they are giving up for Lent.  What used to be a practice reserved for the Catholic and Liturgical churches has, in recent days, found a commonplace in mainstream evangelicalism.  All of us know someone who is observing Lent, and perhaps you are yourself.  If I did not have concerns about the value of Lent, I would find the myriad of ‘fasting’ ideas comical.  How is abstaining from chocolate going to help my attitude of worship during the Easter season?!  

For those of you who don’t know what Lent is, it is a 40 day period beginning on Ash Wednesday (February 10th this year) that leads up to Easter Sunday.  The purpose of Lent is to prepare the worshipper to celebrate the resurrection. This is usually done by practicing some kind of fast.  Today it is vogue to give up some kind of a luxury like TV, fast food, video games, or something like.   

The reason I hear most people say they observe Lent is two-fold: 1) to draw closer to God and 2) to prepare for Easter. This is a good thing, right?  It is always good to draw near to God, and Easter celebrates the climax of God’s redemption of mankind as Christ rises victorious from the grave.  I do not doubt people’s motives in observing Lent, but I wonder if it is accomplishing what they hope it will, for a deeper inspection of its activities reveal it to be counterproductive for what we are seeking.  

Lent is an ancient practice. It took the form it has today in the 7th century, so it has been around for a really long time.  The goal of Lent has always been to seek a more intimate relationship with God.  Although I have no issue with this goal, the way Lent facilitates it is wrong.  Consider with me why the activities of Lent are observed.  

Most people’s understanding of Lent is that you give something up for the 40 days before Easter, and that somehow this ‘fast’ of sorts is supposed to bring you closer to God. But if you look up any theological or historical explanation of the tradition of Lent, you will discover that the center of the Lenten activities is penance.   

Penance is what Roman Catholics do to merit grace for sins committed post baptism. In a system where penance is necessary, Christ’s death paid for original sin and provides a way for salvation, but sins committed after baptism are the responsibility of the individual to pay for. They merit grace for those sins by observing the sacraments and doing things like giving to the poor and inflicting self-suffering.  Then when they die, the remaining balance of their sin must be paid for in purgatory.  Once they have suffered sufficiently, they are let out of purgatory into heaven.  

The activities of Lent are designed to impose self-suffering in order to receive grace. It is 40 days long because that is how long Jesus was in the wilderness being tempted by the Devil.  So we are mirroring and, depending on who is explaining Lent, participating in the suffering of Christ by inflicting suffering on ourselves for 40 days.  

The need to imitate and participate in Jesus’ suffering is also what drives the fast. Lenten observers are supposed to fast, abstain from sex on Friday, and engage in charitable works. The fast and abstinence are self-depravation designed to merit grace.  Alms giving (charitable works) is another sacrament of the Catholic Church designed to earn grace for the observant. These activities are designed, according to the Vatican Counsel II, to bring one closer to God.[1]  But this is based completely on a works-based salvation  where it is man’s actions that earn their standing before God, the very thing that the Easter season reminds us is impossible to do. That is why Jesus came, suffered, and died.  If He hadn’t done it for us, we could not be saved.  We do not earn God’s grace, or else it wouldn’t be grace!  

No wonder the Puritans and early Baptists walked away from these things! And I cannot understand why so many people are returning to them as a means to draw close to God.   

Now, if you are observing Lent, you are probably thinking, this is not what I am doing! I am just giving something up to help me focus on the Easter season before celebrating the resurrection.  This has been a common thought among the mainline denominations for years as they claim Lent is an observation of penitence, not penance.  Penitence is focused more on repentance than its penance counterpart is.  But it still requires penitent works to validate one's repentance, and those works are still fasting, abstinence, and charitable acts.  In other words, it is the same things as penance, it is just repackaged with a term more palatable to Protestants who have rejected the works-based system of the Roman Church.  But other than the claim that we are doing repentance instead of penance, we have not changed a single form of the observation.  

It is a good thing to want to prepare for the Easter season. Churches often do a good job celebrating Christmas while relegating the observation of Easter to one weekend a year.  Yet Easter is just as important if not more so than Christmas.  I can appreciate my brothers and sisters in Christ who want to be intentional about preparing to worship on Easter Sunday.  Yet Lent produces a false intimacy with God through activities that run contrary to the very thing we are celebrating.   

Jesus’ death paid the full penalty for sin. No further payment is needed.  He drank the full cup of God’s wrath as He hung on the cross.  We are not saved by works, and the works we do after salvation are not to earn God’s favor. Instead, they come because we already have God’s favor.  They are the natural outworking of salvation, flowing from love for God as we lay aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him (Col. 3:9-10).  

Thus the better approach is not to give upt he things of this world to draw closer to God during Lent, but to give up the things of the world. If something like TV or video games or fast food in impeding your relationship with God, then give them up permanently.  Why would we temporarily walk away from them to draw close to God, and then return to them knowing that they will diminish our intimacy with God?  It makes no sense.  

I want to draw near to God during the Easter season, and I hope you do to. But we should seek to do this through the means God has told do that, not through the false spirituality produced by giving up Tim Hortons for 40 days (which is a pretty cheap immitation of Christ's suffering in the wilderness).  Intimacy with God is produced by spending time with Him in His word and in prayer, and then leaving these times of sweet fellowship with a prayerful determination and dependence on the Spirit to do what the Word says.  

I am excited about the Easter season, and I want this to be a special time of worship as I remember everything Christ has done to bring me from the spiritual death of my sin to the glorious life I now have in Christ. And there are ways to do that without following strange traditions rooted in meritorious pursuits of God’s grace.  

Here are some suggestions. Spend extra time reading the Biblical accounts of Jesus’ arrest, trail, execution, and resurrection.  Maybe read a chronological harmony of the gospels.  Study John 13-17, where Jesus shares His last hours with His disciples.  Take some extra time to read books like Romans and Colossians, where the salvation provided through Christ is described in rich, theological terms.  Maybe commit a passage like Romans 3:21-30 or Colossians 1:13-23 and 2:8-15 to memory.  Meditate on these things.  Keep them at the front of your mind through the Easter season and use them as a catalyst for your prayers and praise.  And ultimately, let the truths of salvation wrought in Christ change the way you live.  These are the things that will produce the abiding relationship with Christ His followers crave.  Doing this isn’t likely to produce 300 likes on your facebook page, but it will produce long-term abiding in Christ.  

[1] T.J. German “Lent” in The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology.